(French/Polish, 1994, 91 minutes, color, 16mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
"Liberte, egalite, fraternite." These are among the most hopeful and ambitious of all national mottos. From the opening moments of the film, when a rebellious pigeon makes its own political statement, it’s clear that Kieslowski’s investigation of social custom will uncover little that is holy, and much that is profane. His encyclical on gender equity arrives with a distinctively Gallic smirk, and the irony that characterizes postwar Polish culture, from its theater of the absurd to its grotesquely eloquent poster art. WHITE begins as a dirty joke, and ends as a plea for selfhood.
"Karol" (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a hapless hairdresser, faces ruin in an ugly divorce case based on his frustrating impotence. No matter how much he and his estranged wife, "Dominique" (Julie Delpy), try, they can’t seem to restore Karol’s, uh, enthusiasm. It’s Paris, says Karol, that has caused him to lose his ardor. Now, if they were home in Poland. . . Soon, Karol’s circumstances are further lowered, literally. We find him as a street musician, scrabbling in the Metro for coins, when, finally, it appears he is rescued. An opportunity presents itself to return to Poland.
However, there is a hitch. There always is with Karol, a likeable schlemiel hero who owes quite a bit to the Buster Keaton of SHERLOCK, JR., and the Jack Lemmon of THE APARTMENT, and even something to the Jerry Lewis/Harry Langdon/Pee Wee Herman school of frozen infancy. But Karol’s ability to stagger gamely to his feet after getting knocked on the head again and again, each time with an idiot’s world-proof grin on his face, is perhaps most reminiscent of Chaplin’s squirrely Everyman. (Kieslowski has said that he named the character after Chaplin, and the film’s ending is straight out of CITY LIGHTS.) This is, after all, a man who is able to greet his arrival in a smelly municipal dump with rapture, and play a comb and tissue paper concerto in the Paris underground with such weeping melodrama that he seems for a moment like the Fritz Kreisler of the subways.
Karol is asked to take something very personal of his in his luggage on the trip, and thereby hangs the rest of this pathological Odyssey. Gangsters, battered corpses, and errant luggage each play a part in Kieslowski’s shaggy-dog surrealism. Poland, though, for all its grimy oddity, is the place where Karol belongs. In retrospect, France, like Dominique, seems sleek and cold, attractive but never satisfying.
Equality in WHITE turns out to mean a bitter psychological stasis, a Cold War of the emotions, more than a joyous collaboration. Kieslowski wondered after completing his trilogy, "Do people really want liberty, equality, fraternity?" Like each of the other Big Ideas in the THREE COLORS trilogy, the ambitious hopes of the French national motto in WHITE are drowned in the gore and rigidified passions of the French Revolution.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.